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How Not to Drown

Posted by tezza on 17/5/2008 at 15:41

Most tourist drownings in SE Asia involve people caught in RIP CURRENTS on popular beaches. Thailand’s Phuket and big Ko Chang have the worst records, but rip currents can occur anywhere there is a surf running.
All that water heading beachwards has to get back out to sea somehow, and that is the rip current.
Waves in Thailand and Cambodia are more a wet season thing, during and after periods of prolonged strong winds. Waves are absent to very small 99% of dry season. The Vietnamese coast can get waves any time of year, but more November thru March. Indo has so many areas which get surf, but the mass-touristed Tuban-Kuta-Legian-Seminyak strip in Bali needs emphasis - this area can get waves in all seasons and care needs to be taken.

Inexperienced people finding themselves shooting out to sea in a rip current try to swim against it, get exhausted, take in water, and drown.

THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN! Anyone who can merely tread water, let alone swim, should never drown in a rip.

Surfers use rips all the time to take them “out the back” to the take-off zone. They don’t even have to swim or paddle their boards, they just float on out there. I suggest poor swimmers do exactly the same - GO WITH THE FLOW.
ALL rips dissipate in the deeper water just behind the wave breaking zone. They have done their job, and do not go further. The longest rip I have ever seen went 400 meters from the shore in a HUGE SURF, much bigger than anything most SE Asia gets. Typical rips last for 100-150m. Once you are out in the calmer water past the break zone, tread water, put up your hand and wait for someone with a boat to pick you up.
Treading water is a minimal effort activity, something the average person could do for maybe 24 hours in Thailand before dehydration becomes a problem (the water is warm so hypothermia is not a short or medium term problem)*.
*I've since been told that hypothermia will eventually set in in any water below body temperature - which all ocean water is. But it will take many hours in tropical water.

DON’T TRY TO SWIM AGAINST THE RIP. A world champion will go backwards against a strong rip. All but very fit swimmers will become exhausted swimming against even gentle rips.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT SHARKS - tens of thousands of surfers and ocean swimmers in Australia and other much sharkier places than Thailand individually spend hundreds of hours yearly swimming and surfing without worries. Hell, I’ve never heard of a shark attack in Thailand, except in that heap of nonsense book+ by Alex Garland. So you can float around out the back for hours and not give the nibblers a thought.

+okay, the book wasn’t bad at all, the movie was.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT UNDERTOWS - there is no such thing as a rip which will drag you under, let alone keep you under.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT WAVES BREAKING ON YOUR HEAD - rip currents move out thru the deeper channels between sandbars - waves break in shallow water (largely on the sandbars) so these deeper channels often have no waves or few waves. If one does come when you are in the rip, take a breath, dive down or duck your head. You are gonna pop up on the other side - that breath guarantees it.

Surf-lifesavers in Australia say if you are caught in a rip, SWIM SIDEWAYS TO THE RIP (parallel to the beach). Even big rips are never more than about 30m across, so you will soon move out of the current and hopefully into the shallow water of the sandbar where you can stand.
I think this is good advice for people who are not exhausted and who start swimming sideways immediately. Wait too long and you are likely to end up on the sandbar but in deeper water, unable to stand up, more exhausted by the swim and with big waves breaking on your head, which can be pretty frightening for the inexperienced. I reckon it is much cooler to allow the rip to take you seaward, then float around out the back waiting for someone to pick you up. It’s nice out there.

*Look for the sections where no waves or fewer waves are breaking (note what a trap this is for the inexperienced: “this looks safe, NO WAVES, I’ll swim here”)
*Big rips often scour sand as they go and look sandy.
*When the wind is blowing in the opposite direction, the surface of the rip is often disturbed and choppy looking.
Note however, many rips are very difficult to spot from beach or water level.
For some good PHOTOGRAPHS and DIAGRAMS of rips check out the SOME TIPS ON NOT DROWNING page in the link on my sigline below.

*The bigger the surf, the stronger the rip - there is more water to move back out to sea.
*Rips are strongest at low tide when all that water has to move through a shallower channel; and there is a greater quantity of water to move out because the waves breaking on the shallower sandbars tend to be bigger and more frequent.
*At the ends of beaches there is usually a rip running along at least one of the headlands, maybe both if the swell is coming in exactly front-on to the beach (most swell has a slightly oblique angle of approach).
*A longish beach like Patong or Karon typically has more than a half dozen sandbars separated by channels containing rip currents if surf is running.
*Rips are fed by FEEDER CURRENTS, which run parallel to the beach just off the sand, in the (usually small) channel between the sandbar and the beach. These feeders get stronger as they approach the big channel between the sandbars, where they turn right angles and head out to sea as a full blown rip. Sometimes FEEDER CURRENTS are strong enough towards their ends to drag non/poor swimmers sideways into the rip proper.

Most waves approach the beach at a slightly oblique angle - ie the wave front is not exactly parallel with the beach. This sets up a sideways current (parallel to the beach) known as the LONGSHORE CURRENT, LONGSHORE DRIFT or colloquially, SIDE DRAG, which tends to be located out near the break zone.
Usually this current is not strong, and gives no problems, but if the swell approaches at a bigger angle to the beach and is big in size, it can be powerful enough to drag swimmers sideways off the sand-bar, and into the rip current in the adjacent channel. It can also be powerful enough to drag the swimmer thru the rip-current and continue on its merry way down the beach.
No problems, just make sure you are not still in the rip-current channel (wait 'til the waves are biggest) and then swim towards shore. The waves will help wash you in.
If you are a poor swimmer and don’t like the idea of getting pounded by breaking waves, just cruise on down the beach and wait for someone to haul you out with a boat. Or swim out to sea a bit, you will move out of the side drag and stay in the one spot.
If you are a NON SWIMMER and get swept sideways off the sandbar, you are gunna drown. But you should have been nowhere near the break zone, which is usually a fair way from shore.
Non swimmers should NEVER go in more than thigh deep in any surf, and even then should be aware of the FEEDER CURRENTS mentioned before.

When the tide rises and falls, water moving into and out of narrow inlets and passages between islands, and over shallow reefs, result in TIDAL CURRENTS. These tend to be strongest mid-tide and usually run parallel to shore.
In places with HUGE tides, they can be awesome, running at 30km+, with associated vortexes (whirlpools) and standing waves of 2m where strong winds blow against them.
In SE Asia, the tidal range is not huge and so these currents are not all that strong - as a matter of fact they are good for a no-effort (no need to swim or kick) drift along the edge of a fringing reef checking the coral and fish. When you get tired of that, you swim into the beach, walk back up to the starting point, and repeat as needed.
However, I have seen a few Asian tidal currents which would be difficult for a poorer swimmer to swim against. A Brit guy once told me he found himself being carried along the headland at the south of Hat Rin and had a hell of a time getting back to the beach. At one stage he thought he would not make it.
I reckon poor swimmers should not try. Swim in to the rocks and rock-hop back. If this looks too difficult (sometimes hauling yourself out of the water in rocky areas is near impossible) swim OUT into deeper water. The tidal currents do not run here (unless you are in a gap between islands, at the mouth of a bay or similar). Then swim back to the beach in stages, with periodic tread-water rests when needed. Or wait for someone with a boat.

Okay, hopefully you guys will never be caught in any sort of dangerous ocean rip or current, but if so, maybe the above info will prove useful. Note I’m self-taught on most of this stuff, so if you see any mistakes or areas which could be improved, please fire them in below. Big wave surfers hold off on any HOLD DOWN examples of “undertow” - nobody but you is crazy enough to find him/herself in surf that monstrously big.

#1 tezza has been a member since 13/4/2006. Posts: 1,358

Posted by fivesilver on 28/1/2009 at 02:45

Excellent piece, thanks.
I'm just learning to swim (to my great shame, at 39), and heading for SE Asia in mid-April. I'll commit your advice to memory.

#2 fivesilver has been a member since 3/8/2008. Posts: 39

Posted by BruceMoon on 5/6/2009 at 18:52


A great article.

Hopefully poor swimmers will read and remember.

Perhaps the best advice to poor swimmers is NOT to swim beyond knee deep waves.

Putting this another way.

If the waves are higher then your knees, don't swim in such waves.

Swim in calmer water.


#3 BruceMoon has been a member since 27/12/2008. Location: Australia. Posts: 1,941

Posted by MADMAC on 14/6/2009 at 16:08

Also, at least where I live, do not swim in the Mekong! Two reasons for this. The Mekong has some strong currents with whirlpools into deep channels that can suck you down into the channel and not release you for hours or days - longer than you can hold your breath. People can and do die in it all the time.
Secondly, there are all kinds of nasty micro organisms in the river and they can cause all sorts of ailments. The river is not clean. A good friend of mine went swimming there three years ago and got a horrible skin infection. He went to the doctor who took one look and said to him "You've been swimming in the Mekong haven't you?"

#4 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957

Posted by Manticore on 16/6/2009 at 01:47

In the event of a boating accident, I have heard that it is a good idea to swim away from the locals because most of them don't know how to swim and, in their panic, will grab hold of anything buoyant, which is likely to be you.

#5 Manticore has been a member since 9/11/2006. Posts: 67

Posted by tezza on 20/10/2009 at 06:11

I haven't had to do this, but the general advice in Australian surf-lifesaving circles is that if someone grabs you and makes the situation unsafe, take a breath and submerge. Grabber panics, lets go and heads for the surface.
Oh yeah, when training lifesavers also practise fancy release moves almost like judo etc - but this is not much good to the untrained.

#6 tezza has been a member since 13/4/2006. Posts: 1,358

Posted by tezza on 23/5/2010 at 12:39

The wet season south-westerlies have belatedly kicked in. On and just after those days when things get real blowy exposed beaches can get some biggish surf with dangerous rips. Last year 3 people drowned on big Chang’s Lonely Beach alone. I don’t want to think about Chang’s White Sand Beach or the Andaman.
I reckon it won't hurt to jump this thread up top again.

#7 tezza has been a member since 13/4/2006. Posts: 1,358

Posted by apriljune on 1/6/2010 at 17:17

guys, thank you for detailed information that you've shared to us.
you help me a lot and i well follow the guidelines.

lot's a lot

#8 apriljune has been a member since 1/6/2010. Posts: 13

Posted by ZPeppiatt on 1/6/2010 at 18:26

Thanks for such an informative post Tezza - I got caught in a rip off Kovolam Beach in Kerala once (after my a-hole ex-boyfriend decided to pull me out of my depth against my will, despite me telling him about the riptide at that beach). I'll never forget the sheer mind numbing terror of realising I was swimming as hard as I could but not going anywhere.

I'd read that you should swim along the beach with the rip, but in my panic I couldn't work out which way that was & ended up trying to swim across but against the rip. Luckily a life guard spotted us & signalled that we should swim in the opposite direction & we were back on the beach in no time.

You mention the Andaman coast above - we're heading down to Phi Phi 14-21 June, but will probably be sticking to the East/SouthEast beaches. Do we need to worry about rips there?

#9 ZPeppiatt has been a member since 12/4/2010. Posts: 38

Posted by tezza on 22/7/2010 at 17:53

Jeez ZP, just noticed your thread.

Bit late now but I'm willing to bet you had no worries in the SE in June. I was there myself - even though there was a bit of a blow some days from the SW monsoon, the short distance over which it blows from the mainland meant that even on exposed western beaches there was not much of a swell (wave size depends on distance over which wind blows plus duration of blow plus velocity of wind). On the sheltered beaches it was flat as a tack.

The Andaman was different. I had a real good swim at Farang (Charlie) Beach on Muk, got me a couple of good body-waves in a fairly big surf - quite a few rip-currents about. Only 3 people in the whole beach area that day so no-one had problems.
A couple of days later at Sunset Beach on Kradan similar conditions. Hell, I was the only tourist on the whole island so once again no one drowned.

The main beaches on Phuket were pretty nasty when I got back before my flight home from there - but they do have lifeguards. Note you can still drown real quick if you go in somewhere away from the lifeguards - and drown in front of them if they aint worth 20 cents rescue and resuss wise.

#10 tezza has been a member since 13/4/2006. Posts: 1,358

Posted by michtui on 22/7/2010 at 20:13

Thanks for sharing all these. I agree with you. For those individuals who want to make sure that there vacation will be enjoyable, they have to bring along with them all of these tips.

#11 michtui has been a member since 22/7/2010. Posts: 1

Posted by tezza on 15/8/2010 at 17:04

Just read a newpaper article that said latest research indicates closed chest compression is as effective as CPR (which incorporates "kiss of life" resussitation with closed chest massage) in reviving people dragged in from the surf.

Now the former is so much simpler - just compress the rib-cage with a two handed palms push at about the same rate as breathing. With infants use a two-fingered compression.
Good idea to make sure the breathing passages are unblocked first - lay patient on side (which allows swallowed water to drain - if you bend legs at knees it will stop them rolling back or further) and manually clear mouth - check for swallowed tongue although this apparently is not as common as most think.
Once this is done roll patient on to back and start chest compressions. Of course if you know CPR or have someone else who can co-ordinate with your chest compressions you aint gonna do any harm.

Okay, I'm doing all this from memory. Ages since I practiced. Some of you dudes may see mistakes or know better methods. Thing is the article said in 70% of cases people DO NOTHING. Hell, if it was me I'd want people to TRY SOMETHING.

#12 tezza has been a member since 13/4/2006. Posts: 1,358

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